The two largest space powers outside the U.S. had wildly divergent records in 2011, with Beijing boasting 19 launches and demonstrating in-orbit docking for a future space station while the Kremlin ordered an investigation into a string of high-profile engineering failures plaguing Russia’s space program.
The implications for Russia of a nosedive in the quality of its space efforts could be especially serious. The failures have been condemned by President Dmitry Medvedev, and the efforts at recovery will be watched carefully beyond Russia. The troubles have hit just as NASA has become reliant on its International Space Station (ISS) partner for manned spaceflights and as Moscow seeks to expand its commercial reach with launches from South America.
Meanwhile, China—only the third nation to develop its own capability to launch humans into orbit and long a player in commercial launch services—is growing increasingly confident.
Last month, top Russian officials demanded an inquiry into a spate of mishaps over the past 13 months that included the loss of a robotic Mars probe and a launch failure that sent an ISS-bound cargo carrier crashing to Earth.
With the Dec. 23 appointment of Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, to serve as deputy premier of defense procurement, the Russian space agency Roscosmos is under mounting pressure to explain the cause of its botched missions. In a Dec. 29 Twitter post, Rogozin indicated that the findings of an investigation are imminent.